TALLMADGE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — The son of a Michigan farm owner has been charged with assault after a tirade against a migrant worker was caught on tape.
The incident happened in late July at the EDS Schoenborn Orchard in Ottawa County’s Tallmadge Township near Conklin. Police reports allege that Travis Schoenborn, 31, spit on a migrant worker after calling him racist slurs and humiliating him in front of his coworkers.
The incident came to light when the alleged victim reached out to Migrant Legal Aid, where Teresa Hendricks-Pitsch, the agency’s lead attorney and executive director, took on the case.
“This was some of the worst verbal abuse that we’ve actually captured on tape,” Hendricks-Pitsch said.
Hendricks-Pitsch said her office regularly fields complaints from migrant workers about their treatment, but rarely are the allegations provable and the victims are often too afraid to participate in pursuing legal remedies.
“Unfortunately, most of the people that abuse the farm workers know that it’s not likely that they will ever be prosecuted because farm workers are not willing to put themselves at risk,” Hendricks-Pitsch said.
The video of the incident, provided by Hendricks, depicts migrant workers standing nearby as Schoenborn goes on his tirade.
“F—ing n—–, okay,” one of the clips begins. “A loud-mouth f—ing n—–, right there. A punk motherf—er. That’s what that is.”
Hendricks said many of the migrant workers don’t speak English and weren’t completely aware of everything being said.
On one of the audio clips provided to police, the sound of Schoenborn spitting on the victim can be heard, according to a police report of the incident.
When sister station WOOD-TV visited the farm, Travis Schoenborn and his mother Valerie approached the crew but once they realized the nature of the reporting, they drove away.
Travis Schoenborn never provided comment but warned the camera crew to leave, stating he had contacted police.
Later, David Schoenborn, the farm’s owner Travis’ father, and Valerie spoke about the matter with the news crew.
Initially, Valerie Schoenborn questioned whether the voice on the recordings was actually her son’s.
“I don’t see Travis,” she said. “Can you prove that that’s Travis?”
She and her husband both later admitted that the voice was indeed their son’s.
The couple was less than apologetic about what happened, though both owners said Schoenborn shouldn’t have used the language he did.
“First of all, they weren’t black,” Valerie Schoenborn said. “They were Mexican. So, I don’t know why he called him the N-word.”
“I just want to give you a chance to be clear and respond. You hear him referring to people as f—ing n—–s,” WOOD pressed before David Schoenborn interrupted.
“We didn’t have no n—–s work here that I know of,” he said casually.
He said his son feels bad about the tirade but insisted that the alleged victim’s behavior pushed him to lose his cool.
“That’s representative of when someone pushes someone to the point where they kind of lose control of themselves a bit,” he said.
The owners said the alleged victim in the case threatened Valerie Schoenborn after she confronted him about how he was disposing of cooking grease on the farm property.
“He called me a name in Spanish. I’m not repeating it,” Valerie Schoenborn said.
When asked if her son’s use of the racial slur bothered her, she responded with another question.
“Is it alright when they call me names?” she said.
EDS Schoenboern Orchards boasts some 230 acres of property, according to David Schoenborn. He said the orchard produces on average 120,000 bushels of apples each year.
David Schoenborn insisted that migrant workers aren’t mistreated on his farm, adding that he needs the workers to run his business.
Hendricks-Pitsch, the Migrant Legal Aid attorney, says she believes otherwise. She says she has fielded other complaints about the orchard, including concerns about living conditions for the migrant workers.
This story, she said, is unique because of the evidence and the willingness of the victim to cooperate. But the treatment, Hendricks said, isn’t unusual. She attributes an increase in complaints to the political climate of the day.
“This has been an increasing problem with violence on farms since 2016,” Hendricks-Pitsch said. “It seems to be more blatant — more overt — and it’s not something that’s hidden as much anymore.”
Travis Schoenborn faces a misdemeanor count of assault and battery. Hendricks-Pitsch said she wanted him charged with ethnic intimidation but because it wasn’t proven that race inspired the attack, she was told by prosecutors the more serious charge wouldn’t be filed.
“It would make sense to me that for the kind of behavior shown on the video and audio that Travis Schoenborn spend time behind bars,” Hendricks-Pitsch said. “It would be the least that could bring some form of justice to our victim and it would be a deterrent if others saw that he actually spent time behind bars.”
Hendricks-Pitsch said she realizes that the case against Travis Schoenborn may still face an uphill battle because it will require sustained cooperation from the migrant workers throughout the proceedings.
Migrant Legal Aid visits farms where migrant workers are employed and provides resources to aid in reporting abuse and criminal activity. She said that information was used in this case and put the justice process in motion.
“I think this is more severe than just pushing someone or slapping them or spitting on them,” Hendricks-Pitsch said. “This involves severe sustained verbal abuse, ethnic intimidation, and physical violence.”